Today was a blast from the past, when I presented a session of the University of Sydney summer school’s program on peace and the environment. They were a mixed bunch of post-grads from various continents and walks of life, including a Canadian Greenpeace activist who had tried to stop the berthing of a US nuclear sub in the ’80s!

In the 80s I was active with YPND (Young People for Nuclear Disarmament). I remember the climate of fear as the “Minutes to Midnight” clock switched to three minutes away from apocalypse under the Presidency of Ronald Reagan.

The summer school group are a mixed lot of mostly mature-age post-graduate students. I was asked for some personal reflections, so I showed pictures and recounted stories from YPND and the 80s peace movement. I recounted how young activists then were mostly distrustful of big organisations, with the exception of Greenpeace.

Teenagers angry at the hypocrisy of politics in the 80s — such as Labor’s Three Mines compromise — looked up to Greenpeace. Unlike all the other big groups, Greenpeace used peaceful direct action to take on governments, from Paris to Washington to Moscow.

The summer school aims to explore the relationship between peace and the environment. We looked at the Green New Deal and other policy issues for a while. Then the whole debate honed onto the ethics of direct action and coal. The conversation ranged from despair to passion, with some heated disagreements about the morality of saving the earth.

Here are some of the questions that came up:

  • Is coal the moral equivalent of war?
  • Is the responsibility to stop climate change comparable to stopping the trains to Auschwitz concentration camp during WWII?
  • Can humanity make peace as it destroys the climate?
  • How far can direct action go and still be peaceful?
  • Does anyone have a “right” to use coal-fired electricity to maintain their standard of living?

It was pretty challenging to be in a room of smart, studious, serious people who are all asking the hard questions. I was exhausted afterwards!

If the mining industry heard the conversation today, they would know that not everyone shares the same ethics, but one thing is certain; the civil disobedience that is building against coal is going to be intelligent, informed and unstoppable. That is the only way to wage peace in our times.